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There is a trend in some science fiction/fantasy art (literature, TV, movies, etc) to make main characters special in some deep way, and then use their special qualities to solve the major conflicts in the story. The prototype for me of this is Anakin Skywalker, but there are many other examples - Maud'ib, Harry Potter, Binti and Onyesonwu, Percy Jackson (I think), and Quentin Coldwater to name a few.

Is there a name for this storytelling device, akin to Deus Ex Machina? (Since, if you're going to make the main character special in some way, who cares what the conflict is? Just give them more abilities until they can handle whatever conflict you can come up with.) To me, it's "The Anakin Effect", but I assume some smarter person then me has worked out a better name!

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    We're on like 5+ names here, this either needs defining more to state exactly what you're after or there's too much opinion involved in what this is actually called.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 9:50
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    @TheLethalCarrot If terminology isn't consistent, that's not the OP's fault. Some of the answers given don't fit all that well either. I don't really understand why this question was closed as opinion-based - it seems a valid question about terminology. One might argue that it's not specifically about SF/F (in which case I can migrate it to Literature), but I haven't seen close-voters making that argument.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 13:29
  • How is this not "opinion-based"? The multiplicity of conflicting answers is evidence of that, surely.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 8:38
  • @Valorum It's not opinion-based because people are able to reference established theories and tropes (see the article by David Brin, and the link from Tvtropes). We might not agree on exactly how to interpret this question yet, but it's certainly not the same as "what's your favorite color?"
    – cduston
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:09
  • @cduston - that doesn't make any sense. You're saying that it's not opinion based because people can point at their preferred trope from a selection of potential matches.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:17

4 Answers 4

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I believe what you're talking about is a distinction between an egalitarian depiction of heroes, where being a hero is something anyone can become through persistence, hard work and courage, versus an aristocratic view of heroes, where you get to be a hero by being born right.

The short story where an astronaut saves his comrades by plugging an air leak with his skin doesn't require him to be born with magic powers or superhuman reflexes. He just needs to be willing to make a personal sacrifice in desperate circumstances, and tough and courageous enough to follow through on it. If he were to have, say, telekinesis and can hold the air in with his mind, then it's not really a story at all anymore.

David Brin has written extensively on the topic, highlighting it with a contrast between Star Wars and Star Trek. I highly recommend reading the article (and others he's written on the topic), but the gist is that in Star Trek the heroes are basically normal people (albeit trained) dealing with problems to the best of their abilities, while in Star Wars the important characters (heroes and villains) are special people by birth who have magic powers that normal people can't ever get. The former is compatible with democratic norms, the latter... is basically a form of aristocracy in space.

So what bothers you is fiction about magic people who are somehow, by birth and not training, better or more important than normal people. Making the heroes super-powered trivializes normal problems and means that normal people need the magic heroes to protect them from the super problems that need to exist to challenge the magic heroes.

I semi-jokingly called this pattern "modern young-adult fiction" but while that is largely true (and exacerbated by all the self-published stuff out there these days), there are still a lot of books that don't fall into this trap. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to list them, but I'd be happy to make some recommendations in chat.

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  • I hate to repeat my comment, but I view David Brin's argument here as wrong in almost all details. It rests on an artificial distinction between two types of qualities. For instance, the person with the extraordinary courage and toughness to make this type of sacrifice is no more "regular" than the person with telekinesis (although more realistic, of course). This only seems like less of an intrinsic ability than telekinesis because the human mind is frankly more complicated. Of course, neither telekinesis nor courage need be fully innate.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:42
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    Note that this is not just a SF thing; in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy the hero must be noble before being laid low. Tennessee Williams wrote plays that show tragedy can arise in anyone's life.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:42
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    Also, I would argue that what I consider Brin's fundamental misunderstanding here is very badly mapped onto a (false?) science-fiction fantasy dichotomy. A story that is about a wunderkind scientist from a long line of scientists who designs a rocket module can be extremely hard science fiction; a story about someone from a poor background who diligently studies the mystic arts to become a great sorcerer can be extremely soft fantasy. Or for that matter, the story of the poor orphan who throws themself in front of the great sorcerer and foils their plans, where all they need is courage.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:56
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    @Adamant Regarding your star trek comments I'll respectfully disagree. You may be describing JJ Abrams trek but real star trek has never claimed Uhura was a linguistics genius or Chekov was unusual in any way. Yes Spock has powers and Kirk has hints of being a strategic genius because he can beat spock at chess. But these are professionals not Savants. They are good at their job and got to be where they are because they were the best but not super. Like Apollo astronauts they had the right stuff. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 9:40
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    Well, if you agree, then I suppose that they have captured what you are talking about, whatever my disagreements. But you do know that David Brin uses Tolkien as precisely an example of "bad" aristocratic fiction, whereas in a comment you used him as an example of the "good" fiction that you like? Brin would say that both Tolkien and Lewis are terrible because they show a world in which humanity is stuck in a static state in which royalty is the rightful form of government, which he would use precisely to classify it as fantasy. I would even agree with portions of that last bit.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:35
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Tvtropes calles it "This looks like a job for Aquaman" and describes it thus:

Basically, a situation where a hero's relatively useless abilities turn out to be phenomenally useful because everything's contrived specifically in order to make them useful, even though realistically there's no reason to expect everything to be so convenient. Often involves Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard. May be used regularly or as a one-off as part of A Day in the Limelight.

Take Aquaman, for instance, since he mainly swims and talks to fish. But wait... the villain's doomsday machine is powered by telepathically controllable sea plankton? Wow, this guy's a great addition to the team!

The backlash against this trope may well be the biggest reason Only the Pure of Heart has started to fall out of favor. It doesn't help that so many examples of it treat the pure-of-heart character as the most vital team member of an otherwise robust cast, so you've got good guys who are worldlier, stronger, smarter, better at strategic thinking, etc., but all of them pale in importance next to the character who is... the most innocent. Because lessons.

The other, closely related trope is "Plot tailored to the party", when it is about the group of heroes instead of a single one. Description:

A plot carefully constructed to use all the character-specific skills or abilities of the ensemble. Often referred to as "Eigen Plot", after a mathematical concept of mapping graphs around specific vectors.

For example, if your team plays Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors, they're going to have to face a water trap, a fire trap, an air trap, and an earth trap.

As a plot, it's a double-edged sword; don't do it, and someone gets left out. Do it too often, and it looks like the bad guys are conspiring with the good guys to tailor their defenses to the heroes' strengths. Also, when one of the heroes has a lame power, there has to be a really bizarre obstacle in there to require their ability.

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  • In a DC comic book in the 1960s, a teenage boy applied for membership in the prestigious Legion of Super-Heroes. His power was to make everything within a certain radius around him turn green (just temporarily.) He pointed out this could be useful when you needed to "camouflage" yourselves to sneak through the wilderness to approach an unsuspecting villain's lair. For some reason, the Legionnaires felt they could continue to struggle along without his help. One of them pointed out that many alien worlds had non-green vegetation, in which case this power wouldn't help at all!
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 23:50
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    I think I'm going to disagree, although it's getting at a variation of the same principle. In my examples (Maud'ib, Harry Potter, Binti and Onyesonwu, etc..) their abilities will render essentially any situation trivial. You're talking about the opposite, where a challenge is designed specifically for a particular set of abilities. Actually, one could argue that this principle happens in LOTR - only a naive but adventurous Hobbit and his loyal companion would ever be able to destroy the ring. The problem with Aquaman is the post-hoc construction of the obsticles, I think.
    – cduston
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 14:59
  • What comes first, egg or a chicken? Hero's Ability or plot crafted to use it? Aquaman was born with the ability to talk with sea creatures. Nobody else can do it. But I can now see what you mean with the edit to the question. What you are asking for is The Ace trope, a special variation of The Chosen One: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheAce Maybe even Mary Sue or Gary Stu :)
    – jo1storm
    Commented Jan 21, 2021 at 7:25
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Those are all variants of the monomyth, more commonly called the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell researched and wrote the popular book on the subject, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

The aspect of the hero’s journey mentioned in this question is often described as the hero being “the chosen one”. I think if you consider these stories carefully, you should find in most cases that while the hero is special and chosen, it is often not the special-ness that is used to resolve the central conflict. To take one example, in the Harry Potter books, while being The Boy Who Lived and being gifted at magic helps Harry in some ways, it makes him as many enemies as friends. His relationships and friendships and his willingness for self-sacrifice are greater factors in his resolving his conflicts than his inherent magic abilities or unknown status as a horocrux.

I think you’ll also find that more often the conflicts are caused by the character being special, not solved. In Harry’s case, Harry’s arrogance and the secret conspiracies against him tend to cause the troubles that befall him.

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  • Sure. However, if you take a broader view, those are simply other forms of being special. How many people are really willing to sacrifice their lives as he does, out of the general population? How many people really have friends who are willing to help them out in such peril? The set of stories that are about truly ordinary people doing truly ordinary things is far, far smaller than people would imagine (and also far more boring, as a general rule).
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:34
  • @Adamant Those are good points. And of course this is all debatable and subject to individual interpretation. I think one thing to think about is not so much what what me think is special about a character based on our lives or the world, but how the aspects of the character are parts of the plot. In Harry Potter, Harry is chosen before the books even start, and he has zero friends at the beginning of the saga. In all heroes journeys, the specialness is important. And it is related to the resolving of the conflict. But usually there’s another factor or factors. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:47
  • That's a good take, but I think it's just an argument against what I presented as a negative aspect of these characters So maybe that was unfair on my part - for sure, the challenges for someone who can (for example) fly must be different then for someone who is very loyal, or very honest - but at the core of the question is the fact that zero humans can fly, but many of us are loyal or honest. So this comment should absolutely be folded into the understanding of the answer, but is not the answer itself.
    – cduston
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:03
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The Chosen One is actually the name of a trope. As is the Hero. Depending on the specific character I think you can get hints of the creator's pet (Wesley Crusher), or the Canon Sue as well.

Using the website TV tropes

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  • To me, what they are looking at has a little of the Chosen One, but it is actually broader than that. The Chosen One has elements of prophecy and destiny, whereas they are talking about pretty much any great special magical abilities, with a bit of New Powers as the Plot Demands, since they say "just give them more abilities until they can handle whatever conflict you can come up with". Most of their examples are Chosen Ones, but I think Binti and Quentin Coldwater do not have many prophecy or fate associations.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:19
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    It's probably hard to come up with a lot of characters that got powers as needed. I think Paul Atriedes or Harry Potter got their powers naturally and are clear chosen ones. A Mary Sue like Rey Palpatine has whatever is needed. Some of this is like evolution. You can not get into certain situations in the first place unless your ability is there to work with it. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:28
  • @Adamant Campbell would include the example characters as chosen ones even without prophecy. The monomyth has countless variations, but when the overall story fits the pattern closely enough, it is instructive to analyze it as a variation. Many hero’s journeys do not have a prophecy behind them. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 6:50
  • @lucasbachmann I think I agree with Adamant here, the existence of a prophecy is not needed for the character traits I'm asking about. That speaks to an additional story-telling device for the source of the abilities, but doesn't relate directly to how the characters resolve conflicts, which is actually what I'm getting at.
    – cduston
    Commented Jan 20, 2021 at 15:08

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